Christian Benteke’s move to Major League Soccer was a decision of the heart, the Belgian international revealed after he made his D.C. United debut on Wednesday evening at Red Bull Arena, providing a welcome garnish to the Black-and-Red’s 2-1 upset win over reigning MLS Cup holders New York City FC.
After a decade of life in the rarified air of the English Premier League with Aston Villa, Liverpool and Crystal Palace, earning dozens of international caps along the way, the 31-year-old striker was ready for something completely new – aided by the allure of working with United’s new head coach Wayne Rooney.
“To be honest with you, my dream was to play in the Premier League. And I've been fortunate, I played there for 10 years, and I felt like I've reached what I wanted to do as a kid,” Benteke told reporters postgame. “I felt that a new challenge would be something that would push me, and bring something different out of me. And when I had a chance to speak with the manager, obviously he's a legend, it was an easy decision in the end.
“I was following MLS and I saw a lot of European players coming here. I'm now joining MLS, but surely in the future there will be more European players.”
Benteke had to wait nearly four weeks from the announcement of his signing on a Designated Player contract through 2024 with a club option in 2025 – reportedly on a club-record salary that eclipses what Rooney himself made with D.C. in 2018-19 – to his first appearance, as the wait for a work visa and other paperwork dragged on.
“I’m really happy,” the deadline-day signing said. “When you see the boys playing and you’re not part of the team, it's really hard. But I’m here now.
“I think it’s the life of a footballer. I think I’ve got enough experience to deal with this kind of situation. So I arrived yesterday, but when you're excited, when you’re looking forward for your challenge, you don't think about being tired or about flying, you just want to play games.”
He'd flown from London to New York to meet his new team on Tuesday, barely enough time to learn his teammates’ names, aside from a brief visit to Washington, D.C. earlier in the month. Yet he was ready to hit the pitch and looked lively when he did, logging 17 minutes off the bench in which he completed six of seven passes, took two shots (one on target) and won several aerial duels as the visitors protected their lead.
The new DP represents a welcome injection of quality, experience and flexibility at the tail end of a frustrating campaign for D.C. Rooney also gave new homegrown signing Kristian Fletcher his MLS debut and praised the efforts of his starting strike partnership Ola Kamara, who scored United’s opener, and Miguel Berry.
“Delighted to get him on the pitch. He brings a lot of experience, and goals,” said Rooney of Benteke. “As you’re seeing tonight, he makes it difficult for defenders – defenders always know they’ve been in a game.
“He was on a long flight yesterday, he hasn't trained with the team, and to be ready and available to get some minutes tonight, I'm very pleased and delighted. We'll see how he is for Sunday [vs. Colorado] but on the other hand, I thought Ola and Miguel did really well as well, so we've got options. We’ll monitor Taxi [Fountas, who sustained a head injury vs. Atlanta last weekend], see where Taxi’s at, but we've got options in attacking areas.”
Benteke is in the mix to make Belgium’s World Cup squad in November and will surely be hoping to make Roberto Martinez’s squad for the September international window. Yet he said he’s willing to sacrifice that in order to explore this new chapter in his life and career.
“I really wanted to choose something that makes me happy, and I’m ready to take any consequences from that,” he said. “I wanted to do something that I would choose myself, what would make me happy when I wake up. So that's my whole decision. I didn't really think about anything else.
“From what I've seen, more open, there are more goals,” he said of MLS. “So I think as a forward, that's what you're looking for.”